Covid-19: both a threat today and a vaccine for tomorrow.

Covid-19: both a threat today and a vaccine for tomorrow.

Covid-19 is a threat that calls for a global vaccine “fix,” and yet, at the same time, the pandemic itself may be immunizing our world, better-equipping humanity to cope with greater risks on the horizon.

Let’s have a look.

First some context. By now, we all know all too well, and all too personally (more about this down the road) the basic facts. A new viral hazard is on the loose. Covid-19 is on the prowl worldwide. Pervading every nook and cranny of Earth’s eight-billion-person population, it’s bringing far too much severe illness, death, and associated pain and suffering in its wake. Hundreds of thousands have been infected; thousands have died

And those are only the ones we know about. 

That’s because statistics are limited to those who’ve been tested, and that testing has been, shall we say, “skimpy, incomplete” (choose your own, possibly pejorative adjective). Lacking more comprehensive data, humanity is flying blind.  Uncertainty is large. Mystery is everywhere. Why the special vulnerability of the elderly? Of males? Why have some nations been hit harder, earlier than others? What’s the right policy response? What’s the path forward to financial recovery? What are the chances of returning to the old normal? When might that occur? Answers aren’t coming. Covid-19 is not running a controlled experiment.

The good news? There is some. (Still sketchy) figures suggest the virus isn’t so deadly as some of its close SARS and MERS relatives.

The bad news? There are three pieces to this. To start, humanity lacks immunity, and covid-19 appears to be more deadly than the flu. Second, covid-19’s transmission and spread seem more rapid than that of its coronavirus antecedents. It was that high transmissivity that allowed it to escape the surveillance and public-health safety net provided by the World Health Organization and its national counterparts. Third, covid-19 has encountered a world far more globally connected economically than the world of even ten or twenty years ago (thanks especially to the increased importance of international supply chains, and the role of China in the world’s economy in particular). As a result, social-distancing countermeasures to slow the disease spread have triggered economic disruption running to trillions of dollars – a significant fraction of the world’s GDP. (Zero-inventory manufacturing models and hoarding have contributed to the woes.) Here in the United States, millions of men and women have been thrown out of work. Even the most extreme financial measures Congress has formulated as of this writing will by no means make the country whole. Business-as-usual? A rapidly fading memory.

Covid-19 and vaccines. Experts tell us that our current challenges with Covid-19 may ebb temporarily, should our current social distancing measures pay off, or should the coming warm season somehow suppress the virulence. But the history of human encounter with smallpox, the Black Death, and other plagues reminds us: just as large earthquakes are often followed by destructive aftershocks, epidemics also herald future recurrence. In recent days, experts have cautioned that our troubles will only truly begin to end when we succeed in developing a vaccine. Minds are active; individuals and firms are vigorously investigating multiple novel ways to accelerate the process. Let us hope and pray that one or more may work. But gauged by past experience – effective vaccines may be some 12-18 months away.

Covid-19 itself as a “vaccination?”But consider this possibility: even as we search for a vaccine, covid-19 may itself already be conferring on humanity some measure of protection against far greater harm – and in several ways. 

Before diving in, let’s recall the history and the general notion of vaccine. American school kids of my generation associate the idea with a particular person. We were taught that the Englishman Edward Jenner(1749-1823) was the father of vaccination. He’d known that milkmaids who’d had cowpox, a much milder disease, were immune to smallpox, and he’d managed to harness this to protect larger numbers of the population. The lessons learned fostered subsequent approaches to conquering several other diseases. 

As grade-schoolers, we weren’t taught all of the subtleties. For example, in Jenner’s time, smallpox epidemics were recurrent and killed perhaps 10% of rural Englanders and 20% of urban dwellers. (The influence of social distancing? Or the opposite, close social contact – with bovines?). Furthermore, protection against smallpox already existed. Jenner (and some others of his time) were already safeguarded by a riskier procedure known as variolation. From Wikipedia:

The procedure was most commonly carried out by inserting/rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules into superficial scratches made in the skin. The patient would develop pustules identical to those caused by naturally occurring smallpox, usually producing a less severe disease than naturally acquired smallpox. Eventually, after about two to four weeks, these symptoms would subside, indicating successful recovery and immunity. The method was first used in China and the Middle East before it was introduced into England and North America in the 1720s in the face of some opposition.

Hmm. Jenner hadn’t acted alone. He’d built on an extensive foundation established by generations of scientists and practitioners before him, traceable back to others of quite different cultures a world away. Talk about the benefits of sustained, evidence-based science and its application. Talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

(Isolated at home for the period, you may have time on your hands. You can do worse than spend a few minutes of that chasing down other particulars of this narrative (perhaps starting with the two Wikipedia links here. Compare with the current unfolding story of Anthony Fauci and today’s global army of public health experts.)

More in the next post.

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